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Got What It Takes to Become an (NFL) National Football League Referee?

My favorite team in the NFL is the "Third" Team. I think I am a pretty good armchair referee. I call 'em as I see 'em!


Got What it Takes?

Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a National Football League (NFL) official? The requirements are extreme but on the other hand, so are the rewards. In a regular NFL Season, the “Best of the Best” can make over a quarter of a million dollars. Referees who make the “cut” and end up officiating the Super Bowl can make $50,000 for just that one game. However, even though the income is attractive, first you must “meet and beat” the requirements if you want to become one of the “Best of the Best”.

The "Best of the Best"

The “Best of the Best'' is determined through a continual ranking and scouting system that is regulated and organized by The National Football League Referee Association (NFLRA). The scouting process includes sending scouts to high schools, universities, colleges, and, referee training camps. Once qualified candidates are selected they are placed on a dynamic roster with their skills constantly evaluated. As they progress they move further up the ladder and the “Best of the Best” will end up determining who becomes the highest rated.

To "make-the-cut", you need to make it to the top 125, which is the approximate number of officials needed for a regular NFL season. Once a referee is placed on the official list, they continue to be graded throughout the season. Every play and every game is watched and graded. The highest-scoring referee becomes the main referee for the Super Bowl. The process repeats itself year after year allowing for rule changes.

The key to becoming the “best of the best” is preparation. A top-tier referee spends at least 30 hours per week studying previous games over the past week and prepares for the next. They also work hard on being physically and mentally prepared every day. It becomes a lifestyle.

“If you were going to write a 10-chapter book about what it’s like to be an official in the NFL, the first nine chapters would deal with preparation. The last chapter would deal with the game.”


The "Third-Team"

During an NFL game, there are seven referees/officials. Each has a different job and position with the main referee being the crew leader. Together they operate as the “third-team” with each having separate roles.

The starting officiating crew positions vary during a play as the play progresses. In the diagram below, The seven types of referees can be identified by the white circles with letter references. Their individual primary functions follow.


The Magic Seven

Bottom line

There are only 30 NFL officiators chosen each year to be the "Best of the Best". Only seven of them are selected to officiate the Super Bowl. They are ranked at over 95.8% accurate on their calls, including "challenging" ones throughout the season.

Below is what you will be expected to do to excellence:

Referee (Crew leader) is the main referee whose biggest responsibility is making the final decision on every call. You can easily spot the crew leader by the color of his cap. He wears a white cap and the other six officiating positions wear black.

  • Stands behind the defensive team.
  • Counts the number of offensive players.
  • Watches the quarterback during pass plays.
  • Watches the running back during running plays.
  • Watches the Kicker and Holder during kicking plays.
  • Communicates decisions on any penalties or clarifications via hand signals and amplified voice


  • NFL umpires stand on the offensive side of the football except when the ball is inside the five-yard line and during the last two minutes of the first half and the last five minutes of the second half.
  • Responsibilities include counting the number of offensive players. Watching the line of scrimmage for holding, illegal blocks, and other penalties. Looks for illegal players downfield. Watches the quarterback for passes beyond the line of scrimmage. Keeps track of scoring and time outs.

Line Judge

  • Position: Covers the opposite sideline from the head linesman
  • Responsibilities: Similar to the head linesman. he rules on out of bounds plays for his sideline. He also helps with offside, encroachment, false start, and other line scrimmage calls. In high school, the line judge is the official timekeeper of the game. In the NFL he is the backup timekeeper if something happens to the clock.

Head Linesman

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  • Position: At the sideline on the line of scrimmage.
  • Responsibilities: Watches for offside or encroachment. Makes out of bounds calls on his sideline. Marks the forward progress of the ball. Is in charge of the chain crew and the current position of the ball. Keeps track of eligible receivers.

Back Judge

  • Position: Covers the area between the field judge and the line judge. Behind the secondary in the middle of the field.
  • Responsibilities: Counts the number of players on defense. Rules on pass interference of holding downfield in the area between the side and field judges. Calls delay of game. Rules on completed passes. Rules on whether field goals are good.

Field Judge

  • Position: Deep down the field behind the secondary on the side of the line judge.
  • Responsibilities: Counts the number of players on defense. Rules on pass interference or holding downfield. Calls delay of game. Rules on completed passes.

Side Judge

  • Position: Deep down the field on the opposite side from the field judge.
  • Responsibilities: Just like the field judge but covers the opposite side of the field.

The Equipment

  • Flag: The main piece of equipment used by the officials is the yellow flag. When the official sees a penalty they throw a yellow flag so the players, coaches, fans, and other officials know there has been a penalty. If the official sees another penalty after throwing the flag, they can throw their bean bag or hat.
  • Whistle: Officials blow a whistle to indicate that a play is over and the players should stop.
  • Uniform: Officials wear a black and white striped shirt and white pants or white striped shirt and black pants.
  • Bean Bag: The bean bag is thrown to mark where a punt was caught or a fumble recovered but can also be used to indicate many other pivot points of the game. It can be either black or blue depending on the crew's preference or the conditions on the field. There are many rules of when, how, and why for any of the crew to throw a flag. The bean bag placement is a form of communication for fans, other officials, and opposing teams. The accuracy of the bean bag placement is a skill set that referees practice. It is one of the many games by game techniques they are ranked on. It is preferable to drop the bag at the point or toss it underhanded...never overhanded.

Physical Requirements

The NFL officials are put through a variety of physical tests as part of their employment and contract. All officials must pass the tests before they can officiate a game.

Among the tests are functional movement screenings, tests of flexibility, speed, and strength.

A typical speed and endurance tryout require that the prospective referee be tested by running forty yards in various styles thirteen times with a 35-second break in between each backward, forward, sideways, or a combination full sprint.

Appearance and Grooming

When was the last time you saw a professional referee wear a beard or tattoos? In the NFL there is no regulation against it, but as tradition prevails, the “clean-cut” representation of a professional referee is still voluntarily upheld.

Referees generally weigh between 165 and 185 pounds.

The Dangers

Physical injuries

It wasn’t that too long ago that a referee got creamed by a Baltimore player in Denver. He suffered nine broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Players have protective equipment, referees do not. With that being said, there are continual steps in keeping the referees safe without jeopardizing their point of reference in the intensity of a game. Agility is the key to defense.


Threats against referees do happen, perhaps more often than you think. Death threats are not excluded. But. that is rare. The most common threats don’t even come from dedicated fans. (Although, social media, blogs, and can indeed, can rake a referee over the coals over a call that compromised the results of the game and incite a negative perspective on the outcome of a game.).

The real threats come from the players and coaches. Tempers can fly depending on what side of the field you are on. Ejections do happen. As a referee, you must be able to stand strong and stick to the truth. Make the call as best that you can and move on.

Threats do happen. Expect it. Keep your mind sharp and deal with it cognitively. That’s a sign of a top professional.

“The objective of a referee is not to get mentioned. I tell a lot of young referees that not being mentioned is king. If you can achieve that, that then it has been a pretty good game.”

-Alan Lewis-

Diet and Sleep

Top-tier referees are disciplined about their life-style. They focus on their health and wellness, including sleep patterns, carb intake, protein intake, and emotional well-being. Nobody has to tell them to pay attention to their health and lifestyle. They do it because they love it. They have to want to be "Best of the Best”.

Top-tier referees take their sleep seriously. The job of being a top-tier referee can be stressful unless you learn to manage it. Achieving this level of self-management will affect every other area of your life in a positive way. Pay attention to your sleep patterns. Sleep management is a good tool to put in your toolbox for success.

Top-tier referees are consistent with what they feed their bodies and when. They learn what fuels not only their body but also their memory and reaction time. Personal health may be the most important factor in success.

Education Required

Ninety-percent of what it takes to become the "Best of the Best" is in the learning, the practice, and exercise that bring both mental and physical agility, coupled, of course, with the ability to master the rules of the game.

In theory, only a high-school education is required but the best of the best have at least a bachelor’s degree along with practical experience.

Studies should include math, physics, and presentation skills.

The Victory of Discipline


You're Hired

Get a Job. Get fit. Get connected.

The path to becoming a referee official takes years of preparation. The importance of a referee becomes evident during the Super Bowl. This is the final test of the best. Super Bowl referees are accurate 95.8 % of the time.

Until you get to a full contract paid position, you may need to supplement your income by working a full or part-time job. Finding jobs that are related to your goal of becoming a referee and are both physically and mentally challenging just makes sense.

Study, practice, volunteer. Each step is one step closer. "Inch by inch, it's a cinch. Mile by mile, it's a trial".

Visit the (NFLRA) National Football League Referee Association and connect. This is the best source for complete rules and changes.

© 2020 Joel Diffendarfer

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